The Rest is Up to You

Like many folks interested in new music, I’m in the process of reading Alex Ross’s just published book, The Rest is Noise. It’s a great read and has been a fabulous distraction during my hour-long daily commute. I’ve been so engrossed in it at points that I’ve been upset when the subway has reached my stop. Perhaps the MTA should consider giving away copies of this book when they announce their fare hike!

Anyway, Ross made a provocative comment on a page I just passed this morning which I thought might trigger some reflection here: “One way or another, all American composers are invisible men.” Ross’s generalization, which implies an ongoing syndrome, served as a philosophical backdrop for a recounting of the travails of composers ranging from Charles Ives and George Gershwin to Will Marion Cook and Duke Ellington. But Ross himself—in an article appearing in this week’s issue of The New Yorker (“The Well-Tempered Web“)—offers a fascinating refutation to this condition through the staggering success of classical music, particularly new music, on the web. According to his assessment, the internet has allowed anyone, especially composers, to be visible to a larger community than ever before in history:

Some recent articles have asked whether the Internet can save classical music. Classical music is, in fact, saving itself; Internet activity is merely the most immediately visible evidence of its refusal to fade away. Younger musicians, in particular, are using every available means to reach a potential public that is far larger than the one that already exists. They are not haunted, as older musicians often are, by nostalgia for a time when Bernstein appeared on the cover of Time and Toscanini was a star of NBC radio. Instead, they see the labyrinth of long-tail culture as an open field of opportunity; they measure success in small leaps.

So, in that spirit, we’d like to invite you to use this space, which is a completely open forum that anyone can contribute to on equal footing, to highlight a few people involved with new music in your aesthetic neck of the woods. While a mention here on NewMusicBox might not be able to turn these folks into household names, a la the next American Idol or the next Food Network Star, with over 50,000 unique visitors every month, who can truly anticipate the ripple effect it might have?

30 thoughts on “The Rest is Up to You

  1. david toub

    Since you asked, there are a number of lesser-known composers whom I have gotten to know online and who I think write pretty interesting music. Indeed, for the most part, I would not have encountered their music were it not for the Web:

    • Galen H. Brown
    • John Prokop
    • Steve Layton
    • Paul Bailey

    And shameless self-promotion aside, none of my music would have been heard since 1980 were it not for my giving it away for free on the Web and participating in several Web-based new music sites. The Web can be a great equalizer, and composers should use it for their advantage.

    Reply
  2. William Osborne

    I agree, Elaine. That sort of gender-specific language went out at least 20 years ago. And Ross definitely knows that such references are hurtful. I wonder what he was thinking?

    Anyway, Frank and Ross are right that the net is allowing composers to be heard. It will help women as much a men – maybe even more, since they are often otherwise subtly excluded from many aspects of new music. Even here on NMB their participation is notably rare – almost invisible.

    William Osborne

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  3. dalgas

    Gee thanks, David. For my own contribution, two links:

    1) For about the last year, Jerry Bowles over at Sequenza 21 has let me do a semi-weekly “click-picks”, highlighting composers and performers who have the web presence-of-mind to let you experience their music online. We’re up to post #38 now, with around 100 musicians featured, and fully a third are women. The full archive is here:

    http://www.sequenza21.com/index.php/?cat=29

    2) At Myspace, I’ve been collecting a “friends” list of other musicians there, who I’ve personally listened to and can happily recommend. There are more than 650 (!) listed currently, in every genre (though most choose art over simple entertainment) and from all over the country and world, 90% of them likely to be new to you. And of course, since it’s Myspace each page comes with it’s own listening built right in. Myspace can be nearly impossible to explore, especially for marginal genres, so I’m doing this essentially to save you all some hassle. The link is:

    http://www.myspace.com/stevelayton

    Again, I think you’ll find quite a few interesting and creative women in the mix. Enjoy!

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  4. Chris Becker

    I agree with Elaine and William. Although I think Alex might have been referencing Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man. But I don’t think the 21st century composer is at all analgolous to Ellison’s protagonist.

    In the past, I’ve taken Steve and other members of the Sequenza 21 gang to task for a lack of attention to African American composers. And many posters there – (not counting David Toub) jumped down my throat. I’ve seen similar reactions in that community towards women. It is far from a friendly inclusive community – butI don’t think it has any pretensions to be one.

    But I go back and forth with the blogs because on the one hand there is so much potential for creative discourse with this medium. On the other hand, it seems to bring out some pretty lame behavior in people (myself included).

    So in addition to supporting Elaine and William I’d like to suggest that the web is not the real world – that getting your music to an audience still results from real world interaction with your community i.e. going to gigs, throwing parties, producing shows etc. That’s how I’ve created opportunities for myself and experienced joy as a creative musician. Any exposure or performances I’ve gotten in the past ten years has not been the direct result of a webpage or my email list.

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  5. Chris Becker

    …and one more thing. Noone has time to do this, but it might be valuable when gathering opinions like those above to take a look at the activity of each composer posting.

    I realize that some composers are completely happy with mp3s, giving away their music and not performing in public venues. This is a new type of composer I think that has been spawned as a result of the web.

    For me, live collaborative performance is crucial to my work. This is how I develop my music. It’s a communal thing – a ritual. And it means I have to be a (relatively) public figure. I can’t live online.

    It is interesting how many jazz musicians now have blogs (Matana Roberts and James Darcy Argue talked about this at a concert of Roberts’ music I attended last week – which was wonderful…)

    …these are people who play a music that has to be realized consistently on planet earth usually with one or two other musicians at least joining the conversation. I wonder if any of them might drift over here and chime in…

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  6. dalgas

    Then again Chris, I (and that lurker in Boulder, or Sofia for that matter) wouldn’t have a clue about you or your excellent work (Chris happens to be on my Myspace “friends” list, by the way, here) right now, if not for this “unreal” web.

    Nothing replaces ear-in-the-room or face-to-face; but plenty can supplement it, and help overcome geography, official status and class, in a way that just didn’t exist for us even ten years ago.

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  7. Chris Becker

    Steve – I hear you. But a MySpace friend translates to what exactly? Someone is aware of my music for a few minutes. Do they buy a CD? Do they come to my shows? In my experience the answer is no.

    And what I’m saying is that what I need as a creative artist may be different from what you or David Toub need when it comes to audience and compensation for my work. So the web is cool – but it isn’t necessarily a great leap forward for all creative composers. In fact, in many ways, from where I sit, it looks like a step backwards when you consider civility and even…oh, boy here I go…a sense of community.

    I removed myself from your list of friends awhiel back because I thought I’d just be lost in the hundreds of faces you have…and I was really irritated with some of the posters and writing on Sequenza 21 and felt like a hypocrite being among your “friends.” Sorry. I have a lot of issues…

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  8. dalgas

    Chris wrote:

    Steve – I hear you. But a MySpace friend translates to what exactly? Someone is aware of my music for a few minutes. Do they buy a CD? Do they come to my shows? In my experience the answer is no.

    (Bearing in mind that Myspace’s interface and in-your-face corporate marketing suck) The “friend” aspect is simply a method for connection. You see and hear me, I see and hear you. Someone may only hear your music for a few minutes, but they may remember you long after that.

    As to buying your CDs and coming to your shows: you may be judging it by an “old-school” paradigm. It may lead to CD purchases; I’ve made many of people who I only discovered on places like Myspace. Still, CDs are in the process of dying, and aren’t likely to provide most contemporary composers with any major (or even significant) income. Downloads, through places like eMusic and iTunes, *do* pay, though slowly and in small increments. For a traditional-concert-setting composer, the money is in performance royalties. In that case, any recordings are most vital and will give the greatest return when they’re as freely disseminated as possible. They’re your calling-card to the next performance or commission.

    They can also help bring people to your shows, too, but even more important is the fact that thousands of people who will never be in a location for one of your shows can still know and appreciate your work, right this moment.

    And what I’m saying is that what I need as a creative artist may be different from what you or David Toub need when it comes to audience and compensation for my work. So the web is cool – but it isn’t necessarily a great leap forward for all creative composers. In fact, in many ways, from where I sit, it looks like a step backwards when you consider civility and even…oh, boy here I go…a sense of community.

    All points well-taken. For each of us, “if it works and is good, it works and is good”. But neither is invalid, right?

    I removed myself from your list of friends awhiel back because I thought I’d just be lost in the hundreds of faces you have…and I was really irritated with some of the posters and writing on Sequenza 21 and felt like a hypocrite being among your “friends.” Sorry. I have a lot of issues…

    No problem. Though by not letting an interested browser run across you, now you’re *really* lost!… ;-). Like I said, Myspace’s interface sucks. I can collect the musicians, but a visitor still has to root around in the friend list. Still, that shows me a visitor that has enough desire to make the effort, rather than sit back and wait for anything of “true worth” to be handed them on a silver platter (We did enough of *that* when there were only big labels for recordings, you know?).

    As to Sequenza 21, any lack of balance or receptivity can be pretty simply addressed simply by signing on and writing your own posts, about things that vitally interest you. The one thing Jerry Bowles does *not* do is try and limit the stylistic content (beyond keeping in mind that it’s for the “contemporary *classical* community”). Then you sit back and take your lumps from all the “hypocrites”, conservatives and crazies, just like in the “real” world…

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  9. Chris Becker

    …and to clarify. Steve, if by “Sofia” you mean Sofia Koutsovitis, I met her through a percussionist I went to college with. She’s an incredible composer and has contributed vocals to several of my projects. I didn’t meet her via MySpace.

    Not sure who this “lurker” in Boulder is you are refering to…see how much is lacking in this form of communication? I might as well be texting you…

    And my issues with Sequenza 21 had nothing to do with Steve directly. He’s pretty civil on that site. Not defensive – he’s clear with his thoughts and I appreciate his viewpoints.

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  10. dalgas

    lurkers everywhere
    No Chris, Sofia means Bulgaria. (But great heads up, thanks!). And just like from Boulder, folks from Sofia really *do* show up here and at other sites around the web (I know; I’ve exchanged e-mails with them). Never forget that for every one person you read posting here, there are likely hundreds that never let you know they’re wtaching and reading. And they come from every corner of the globe.

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  11. GalenHBrown

    Aww, David, you rock too :) Seriously, folks, he does.

    In terms of civility at Sequenza21, I honestly think that a certain amount of playful incivility can make things more fun and interesting. In my post yesterday in the Composers Forum I’m pretty harsh on Mark’s NMBX essay on “West Side Story,” but it’s not at all personal — I’m sure he’s a great guy, and he probaby thinks my arguments against his points are as nutty as I thought his arguments were, which is fine. The “incivility” rarely gets personal — and often when that line does get crossed it’s accidental and the parties involved reconcile promptly.

    In terms of inclusivity at S21, while I can’t speak for everybody my sense is that the S21 regulars agree that it would be great if we had more women and minorities represented, but even when we go out of our way to recruit women and minorities it doesn’t pan out. I think we end up being a reflection of the state of the broader industry — our coverage of music by women and minorities is too small because they’re underrepresented in the industry as a whole, and we cover the stuff we know about. If you know about a bunch of fabulous women and minority composers who we should be covering, or if you want to undertake the much needed project of finding such composers whose profile deserves to be elevated and elevating them, please come and write for us. We do pride ourselves on being inclusive, or perhaps more accurately on being non-exclusive — unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily translate to being accurately representative of the population as a whole.

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  12. Chris Becker

    “…but even more important is the fact that thousands of people who will never be in a location for one of your shows can still know and appreciate your work, right this moment.”

    The net is sorely lacking in translating the live performance experience into any kind of comparable format. What I do is live performance that combines sound design, movement – sometimes film and the energy of my musicians. Someone in Sofia might enjoy a realplayer version of such a performance…but that is not the experience. Not even close. Just like mp3s.

    Maybe its because I work so closely with dancers that I feel this kind of physical and spiritual disconnect with the Internet – even though I use it all the time. I just think it’s a one part of the current paradigm and should not be mistaken for a “community” or “friends.”

    That’s how I feel. And I know other compsoers who feel this way…but they stay away from blogs (and tease me for not doing the same…).

    Reply
  13. dalgas

    Chris wrote: The net is sorely lacking in translating the live performance experience into any kind of comparable format. What I do is live performance that combines sound design, movement – sometimes film and the energy of my musicians. Someone in Sofia might enjoy a realplayer version of such a performance…but that is not the experience. Not even close. Just like mp3s.

    Sure it is; for your grandkids-to-come, our web will look like an Edison cylinder looks to us! :-) A recording or video is what it is, its own experience. The number of times I’m going to hear a Morton Feldman piece live in my life is in the single digits; the number of times I’m going to hear Coltrane live is zilch. But I can still have countless meaningful encounters with their music, through recordings.

    I could watch someone play Nancarrow, but that’s actually a violation of the “authentic” condition. And the brilliance of Francis Dhomont’s work has never existed anywhere *but* in the recording. I sure wouldn’t want to go see the live-theater version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Recorded media brings its own qualities and possibilities to the table, whether complete or as complement.

    We all have expressive visions that require something. Maybe an actual physical space, maybe not; maybe standard instruments or voices, maybe something else. And we may be working within limitations: of time, location, personnel, money, technology… In that case, we might retreat to some more possible place, or we might also test how far we can make what we have do what we want.

    Maybe its because I work so closely with dancers that I feel this kind of physical and spiritual disconnect with the Internet – even though I use it all the time. I just think it’s a one part of the current paradigm and should not be mistaken for a “community” or “friends.”

    You never had a penpal when you were a kid, did you?… I won’t deny your feelings about the web, but I think its not so much a dis-connect as a different-connect. Like it or hate it, we’re still very much a real community. The “friends” bit was Myspace’s idea, not mine! Myspace is a cheesy social-hookup place, that just happens to have the right tools that we can carve out a way to explore and connect new music and musicians from all over.

    Reply
  14. david toub

    Chris, I hear you (and many thanks for not including me on the list of misogynists out there!). And certainly we’d all love for some new music ensemble out there to take a fancy to our music and record it. Who wouldn’t love that?

    But performances are really hard to come by. And even for those who do manage to get a CD or two out, it often is nothing more than background noise, given how many CDs are out there (and yes, CDs are dying. I think they’re really just the walking dead at this point).

    While there’s a lot of dreck out there on the Web, there is also much great stuff. I’m currently listening to an hour-long piece for solo contrabass by the composer and artist Hanne Darboven, and there is no way I’d likely be familiar with her music (or her art, for that matter) were it not for Steve mentioning her music on the Web. I’d never know Steve’s great music either, nor that of a lot of people. ANd absolutely no one would be hearing a note of my music were it not for the Web. The one commercial recording of a piece of mine came about entirely through an e-mail “conversation,” so even there, the Internet was critical.

    Yes, MySpace is never going to win an award for Web design. It’s horrible. But it also enables people like me to actually get music out there, more than we would with our own Web sites. I mean, thanks to MySpace, Rhys Chatham has heard some of my music and writes nice stuff about it. Revenue-generating it isn’t, but if people want to make $, they should all go into investment banking or something else that rapes our society. Art is about making existence just a little bit better in one’s part of the universe. And if the Web can help in that effort, all the better. My musical life is so much richer for having gotten to know a great group of performers and composers through the Web. It works for me. I agree that it might not work for you, Chris, and that’s fine. Everyone needs to find their own solutions that fit his or her needs.

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  15. Chris Becker

    David, I hear you – I feel you. My thought though is why not produce your own shows? But that is not feasible or even desireable for everyone…as you said, we all have to find our own solutions that fit our needs.

    With this in mind, I think we should keep our options open…the CD is dead, and yet there’s a very healthy subculture of vinyl heads out there who are – in addition to buying new releases – buying a lot of stuff from the 70′s and 60′s to expand their listening. I say I don’t feel a genuine connection to a new “friend” on MySpace…and yet, I may end up collaborating with such a person as a result of a few email exchanges…

    I just want composers to ask more questions and offer more skepticism when it comes to the web. Just as Steve complained about major labels dominating the musical market at one time, we shouldn’t just embrace anything that develops within this medium as a “solution” for creative artists in this society. It may transpire that many aspects we embrace may do us harm…

    50,000 unique hits? Is that why I get all this spam every morning in my yahoo box???

    Reply
  16. rtanaka

    Theoretically the internet puts everybody on more or less equal footing in terms of exposure opportunities, and seems to have brought up a lot of hopes for “grassroots” campaigns to take over existing institutionalizations. Though the reality seems to be that a lot of institutions still have a strong influence on the marketability of a product due to their access to advertising revenues and connections to “important” people that helps with career advancement. There’s also the “prestige” aspect that a lot of these institutions seem to have that carries a lot of weight in some circles…

    Do people take grassroots movements as seriously as they say they do? If so, where’s the funding? Awards are given and people don’t seem to have any problems criticizing the recepient, but at the same time nobody seems to want to talk about the possibility that maybe the money itself could be used for other means. How about a free health insurance plan for young artists, for one? We’re one of the cheaper brackets in that area of things. I’m lucky I have a pretty good job working at a library that I don’t mind doing, but I know lots of people running around without one and it makes me nervous as hell.

    If people are serious about this whole “egalitarianism” approach, then the I think the obvious thing to do is to utilize funding in broader strokes. Most people I know, anyway, don’t do this for the glory or money, but having some basic support for living might actually be nice. I don’t know what it is though…love it or hate it, people seem to be obcessed with awards and prizes.

    Reply
  17. philmusic

    “I think we end up being a reflection of the state of the broader industry — our coverage of music by women and minorities is too small because they’re underrepresented in the industry as a whole, and we cover the stuff we know about. ”

    The problem is always someone else!

    Phil Fried

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  18. GalenHBrown

    Well, sure Phil, but I’m not saying we don’t have a problem. I agree that it would be great if S21 were more successful at representing women and minorities. My point is that it’s not “Sequenza21 has a problem” as I sometimes hear, but that the industry has a problem and in spite of our best efforts we’re not combatting that problem as effectively as we would like to be. People also sometimes complain that S21 is too New York or East Coast centric, and it’s true. I don’t know why more non-New Yorkers don’t join up and help improve the situation, and I’d love it if in addition to the “Last Night in LA” feature we had “Last Night in Peoria” and “Last Night in Oshkosh.”

    The thing is, though, that if you think the New York Times or the Boston Globe underrepresents women, minorities, non-eastcoasters, or whomever, all you can really do is write a letter to the editor and hope they listen. With Sequenza21 and with blogging in general you can actually do something to fix it. I’m not saying put up or shut up, but it would be nice if our critics would at least attribute our shortcomings to their actual causes rather than assuming that we’re acting in bad faith.

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  19. philmusic

    Galen, I think this attitude is why composers are considered so irrelivant in America. We expect everything and we owe nothing.

    Phil Fried

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  20. philmusic

    I know–spelling counts
    Galen, I think this attitude is why composers are considered so “irrelevant “in America. We expect everything and we owe nothing.

    Reply
  21. dalgas

    While it’s been a fine discussion, maybe we can get back to the WHOLE POINT of Frank’s post, which — in case we’ve veered so far that no one remembers — was:

    So, in that spirit, we’d like to invite you to use this space, which is a completely open forum that anyone can contribute to on equal footing, to highlight a few people involved with new music in your aesthetic neck of the woods.

    We can save the world tomorrow; right now, give us some names!

    Reply
  22. stevetaylor

    I’d like to throw in the names Reynold Tharp and Philipp Blume – both writing extremely good music (in the sense of chops or technique) that is really saying something.

    Along those same lines, last month I was able to hear Chen Yi’s Third Symphony, which was a total knockout. A real crowd-pleaser, but with none of the usual perjoratives that implies: it worked for me on both the professional (as in Man, I wish I had written that!) and amateur levels.

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  23. GalenHBrown

    Sorry, Phil, who exactly is “expecting everything and owing nothing?” I’m expecting people to try to be reasonable and fair. Is that so far out of line? And as I’ve said many different ways in this discussion I AGREE that Sequenza21 has a responsibility to be inclusive and to try to overcome the problems in the industry, and that we aren’t as successful as we’d like to be. So we have a responsibility to keep trying to do a better job. Which we’re doing. And we have a responsibility to listen to our critics–it’s helpful to have feedback on how well or poorly we’re doing at inclusivity and fair representation–and I’m finding parts of this discussion very helpful. But only the parts that are reasonable and fair.

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  24. rtanaka

    I had the opportunity and pleasure to work with Vinny Golia during my stay at CalArts, and probably one of the reasons I decided to take my career towards doing improvisation. He does an interesting mix of jazz, world, and contemporary classical styles, and his ensembles usually contain a mixture of classical, jazz, and world musicians. A very open and great guy all around.

    The recordings don’t quite capture the experience of the live performance because he uses “conduction” (conducted-improvisation) techniques similar to Butch Morris. He doesn’t do large ensemble performances too frequently but he’s always doing smaller improvised gigs (amazing woodwind player), so if he’s in your area, it’s worth checking out.

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  25. Colin Holter

    I recently heard a piece involving bowed piano by the Chicago-based Kirsten Broberg that absolutely blew me away.

    Reply
  26. philmusic

    Galen, I’ve moved on to topic.

    kaikhosru shapurji sorabji

    jello slave

    Chris Granias

    Carei Thomas

    Ellen Chisty

    Jeanne Lee

    my list that might interest–Phil Fried

    Reply
  27. Marc

    I get an F for not following directions. I thought we were supposed to write in names of people we’d specifically come into contact with through the internet, instead of “your aesthetic neck of the woods.” Simons, Dargel and Volness are in their own necks of the woods, and my head sits directly on my shoulders.

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  28. philmusic

    “I think we end up being a reflection of the state of the broader industry — our coverage of music by women and minorities is too small because they’re underrepresented in the industry as a whole, and we cover the stuff we know about. ”

    Galen, I think this attitude is why composers are considered so “irrelevant “in America. We expect everything and we owe nothing.

    “We composers.”. That would be “us” I think.

    Wasn’t it clear?

    Also composers to listen to;

    Ralph Shapey

    Reply

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